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04 December 2008

What I See in Obama's Eyes When He Waxes Lincolnian

Reading this piece (of what, I leave up to you) in the Guardian led me to the following 2005 article by Obama, which I have annotated. Obama's been milking Lincoln's persona for a decade now; I fear he might actually see himself as Lincoln. More's the pity for the rest of us. (I'm guessing the photo to the right is the one Obama's writing about.)

What I See in Lincoln's Eyes

Monday, June 27, 2005

By Barack Obama

He never won Illinois' Senate seat. But in many ways, he paved the way for me.

My favorite portrait of Lincoln comes from the end of his life. In it, Lincoln's face is as finely lined as a pressed flower. He appears frail, almost broken; his eyes, averted from the camera's lens, seem to contain a heartbreaking melancholy, as if he sees before him what the nation had so recently endured.

It would be a sorrowful picture except for the fact that Lincoln's mouth is turned ever so slightly into a smile. The smile doesn't negate the sorrow. But it alters tragedy into grace. [Ask 650,000 dead if they saw grace.] It's as if this rough-faced, aging man has cast his gaze toward eternity and yet still cherishes his memories--of an imperfect world and its fleeting, sometimes terrible beauty. On trying days, the portrait, a reproduction of which hangs in my office, soothes me; it always asks me questions.

What is it about this man that can move us so profoundly? Some of it has to do with Lincoln's humble beginnings, which often speak to our own. When I moved to Illinois 20 years ago to work as a community organizer, I had no money in my pockets and didn't know a single soul. [He did have a Harvard Law degree in his pockets, though, didn't he?] During my first six years in the state legislature, Democrats were in the minority, and I couldn't get a bill heard, much less passed. In my first race for Congress, I had my head handed to me. So when I, a black man with a funny name, born in Hawaii of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, announced my candidacy for the U.S. Senate, it was hard to imagine a less likely scenario than that I would win [This "unlikely" trope was repeated ad nauseum, as we all know. Yes, it was so amazing that a double-Ivy-League-degreed president of the Harvard Law Review could have reached such heights.] --except, perhaps, for the one that allowed a child born in the backwoods of Kentucky with less than a year of formal education to end up as Illinois' greatest citizen and our nation's greatest President. [At this point, I vomited. Sir, I've read much of Lincoln's writings. I've studied, somewhat, his career. You, sir, are no Lincoln.]

In Lincoln's rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat--in all this, he reminded me not just of my own struggles. [Uh, wait a second. You, Obama, are comparing your well-constructed prose to one of the three or four greatest writers of American English? I'll leave the law aside.] He also reminded me of a larger, fundamental element of American life--the enduring belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams. [The one honest line, probably unintentionally so, in this entire morass of PR/megalomania: this is the key to Obama, or to any politician, really. But please don't extend this conclusion to normal people.]

A connected idea attracts us to Lincoln: as we remake ourselves, we remake our surroundings. He didn't just talk or write or theorize. He split rail, fired rifles, tried cases and pushed for new bridges and roads and waterways. In his sheer energy, Lincoln captures a hunger in us to build and to innovate. It's a quality that can get us in trouble; we may be blind at times to the costs of progress. And yet, when I travel to other parts of the world, I remember that it is precisely such energy that sets us apart, a sense that there are no limits to the heights our nation might reach. [The necessary American Exceptionalism. Always congratulate your marks -- I mean, audience -- by lauding, however incorrectly, accidents of birth.]

Still, as I look at his picture, it is the man and not the icon that speaks to me. I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. As a law professor and civil rights lawyer and as an African American, I am fully aware of his limited views on race. Anyone who actually reads the Emancipation Proclamation knows it was more a military document than a clarion call for justice. Scholars tell us too that Lincoln wasn't immune from political considerations and that his temperament could be indecisive and morose.

But it is precisely those imperfections--and the painful self-awareness of those failings etched in every crease of his face and reflected in those haunted eyes--that make him so compelling. For when the time came to confront the greatest moral challenge this nation has ever faced, this all too human man did not pass the challenge on to future generations. [A dig at Bush; this is a campaign document after all.] He neither demonized the fathers and sons who did battle on the other side nor sought to diminish the terrible costs of his war. [This might explain Obama's naive embrace of his opponents -- if opponents they truly be. You see, Obama sees himself as a remaker of the nation. How hard Hillary, Gates, et al, must be laughing, if Obama is actually so deluded. How easy to manipulate such a person. I tend to think it's all PR bullshit, though, but the danger is when you begin to believe your own lies.] In the midst of slavery's dark storm and the complexities of governing a house divided, he somehow kept his moral compass pointed firm and true. [Yes: don't let the South secede, as they had every right to, start a massive and avoidable war, repatriate blacks overseas.]

What I marvel at, what gives me such hope, is that this man could overcome depression, self-doubt and the constraints of biography and not only act decisively but retain his humanity. Like a figure from the Old Testament, he wandered the earth, making mistakes, loving his family but causing them pain, despairing over the course of events, trying to divine God's will. [Such a refreshing change after years of Bush-as-God's-instrument, isn't it? Note the uniform silence by Democrats and "liberals" on Obama's entirely Bushian messiah-and-God-talk.] He did not know how things would turn out, but he did his best.

A few weeks ago, I spoke at the commencement at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. I stood in view of the spot where Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held one of their famous debates during their race for the U.S. Senate. The only way for Lincoln to get onto the podium was to squeeze his lanky frame through a window, whereupon he reportedly remarked, "At last I have finally gone through college." Waiting for the soon-to-be graduates to assemble, I thought that even as Lincoln lost that Senate race, his arguments that day* would result, centuries later, in my occupying the same seat that he coveted. He may not have dreamed of that exact outcome. [Yes, I think we can be sure he didn't dream that a black man named Barack Obama would win his seat 150 years later.] But I like to believe he would have appreciated the irony. Humor, ambiguity, complexity, compassion--all were part of his character. And as Lincoln called once upon the better angels of our nature, I believe that he is calling still, across the ages, to summon some measure of that character, the American character, in each of us today.


*See pages 701-721 in vol. 1 of the Library of America Lincoln volumes for "his arguments that day." There's not one argument in there that leads to a black person, let alone Obama, gaining a Senate seat.

I might point out that Obama is hardly the Omega Point he makes himself out to be. In 1871, Hiram Revels took his seat in the Senate. This is important: Obama has very cleverly positioned himself as the embodiment and apotheosis of all that good and true in American history. One desperately hopes he is doing this cynically. God help us all if he actually believes it.

Lincoln opens his rejoinder to Douglas -- I had just re-read all these debates a few weeks ago -- by stating that although Jefferson, as Lincoln argues, did have blacks in mind when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and thus that blacks, too, are created equal,
the Judge will have it that if we do not confess that there is a sort of inequality between the white and black races, which justifies us in making them slaves, we must, then, insist that there is a degree of equality that requires us to make them our wives....I have all the while maintained, that in so far as it should be insisted that there was an equality between the white and the black races that should produce perfect social and political equality, it was an impossibility. This you have seen in my printed speeches, and with it I have said, that in their right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," as proclaimed in that old Declaration, the inferior races are our equals. And these declarations I have constantly made in reference to the abstract moral question, to contemplate and consider when we are legislating about any new country which is not already cursed with the actual presence of the evil -- slavery. I have never manifested any impatience with the necessities that spring from the actual presence of black people amongst us, and the actual existence of slavery amongst us where it does already exist; but I have insisted that, in legislating for new countries, wehre it does not exist, there is no just rule other than that of moral and abstract right!
Lincoln goes on to argue that slavery is wrong; that he is not a devotee of "extreme Abolitionism"; that the Republicans aren't any more sectionally divided than the Democrats; and that the right to slavery is not expressly affirmed in the Constitution. He cites Clay and the Colonization Society, favorably, in support of what he takes to be blacks' liberties and closes by supporting "acquisition of territory" -- this is understood as America's right -- but not supporting the expansion of slavery in those territories.

Come to think of it, maybe Lincoln's hypocrisy, Macbethian ambition, and warmongering is a good model for Obama after all!


  1. It's nice to have a President-elect who can actually write though.

  2. I happen to be one of the few Americans who is not a lawyer. Will someone [anyone?] please tell me why it is such a big deal to be president of the Harvard Law Review. What about graduating summa cum laude or tops in the class? Aren't those a bigger deal?

  3. Anonymous: Here's an explanation of the strange history and current significance of student-run law reviews.

    DiAnne: Yeah, I guess so. So could Kennedy (via Ted Sorenson), and he was no great shakes, either.

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